Autonomous Boat to Cross the Atlantic Ocean

Over the last few months, I have been busy building a fully autonomous sailboat that attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

It was initially launched from Newfoundland heading towards Ireland. Although the initial attempt was not successful, I've gained a lot of extremely valuable experience, and I am going to build another, more capable boat. You can find more details along with a tracking map on www.opentransat.com.

The base consists of a surfboard and aluminum profiles. It is balanced by a heavy keel with lead weights that would flip the boat back over in case it flips. All materials used should survive for years in the ocean. It is rather an experimental concept that can be easily modified to test various configurations. My next boat will be optimized for speed.

The primary power source is four LiFePo4 3.2V 36Ah cells that are being charged by a 100W solar panel. When the batteries are fully charged, the boat can work four days without any sunlight.

The boat reports its position via the Iridium satellite network using the RockBlock module and two additional SPOT trackers (Globalstar satellite network).

The main electronic components are sealed in a Pelican case. The Iridium satellite module, as well as GPS, are in a separate polycarbonate case for better signal reception.

There are plenty of sensors on board that tell us more about the condition of the boat, such as the humidity inside the waterproof housing, air temperature and water temperature. There is also a hacked action camera that is powered by the main source, and it is turned on by the Arduino controller for 30 seconds every hour. The video is recorded on a 128 GB uSD card.

Hopefully, I will recover the boat one day to see exactly what went wrong before proceeding to the next design. My next attempt will be most likely next year, but it depends mostly on the weather conditions (it's not a good idea to navigate the boat through icebergs or hurricanes). Crossing the Atlantic Ocean autonomously is quite a significant challenge. At the time of writing this post, nobody so far has ever attained this. I will keep you updated on this front!

The MicroTransat Challenge competition with the rules that my boat strictly follows is below:

www.microtransat.org 

Project website:

www.opentransat.com

fb group:

www.facebook.com/OpenTransat

Views: 1775

Comment by Gary McCray on October 27, 2016 at 9:20am

Definitely wish you the best of luck.

There is one group that has successfully gone from California to Hawaii with a solar powered autonomous boat.

http://www.seacharger.com/

And I thought this was an interesting concept for a wave powered one.

https://www.liquid-robotics.com/platform/how-it-works/

Although I think this last design is flawed in that the wave module could become seriously problematic with it's long tether in a storm, also picking up weed and flotsam.

Personally I would like to see if a wave powered boat could be designed that might be able to survive all conditions, then all you would need would be "solar" power for direction and communications.

I am also skeptical that a conventional sail is a reasonable solution, way too much force generated in offshore storms and huge waves.

Possibly rigid aerodynamic sail(s) (but not like current designs).

Maybe, need something that looks more like a smooth torpedo, just with bulletproof solar panels on top and a smooth streamlined profile to shed seaweed and other flotsam.

In any case, it is a hugely complicated undertaking to try and compensate for and survive all of the possible sea conditions and it will be interesting to see what finally evolves as the best vessel.

Best Regards,

Gary

Comment by RPM on October 27, 2016 at 9:24am

Cool project, unfortunate that it turned into sea trash. Where was your intended destination? Remnants of hurricane Matthew came through and hit the island pretty hard around the same time it went dark it seems.

Comment by Andy Osusky on October 27, 2016 at 9:54am

Over the last years, I have been closely watching several attempts of crossing the ocean using solar power and thrusters. They had one common problem - the thrusters got jammed with seaweed or fishing lines. This is why I focused on a sailboat. Seacharger really surprised me. It would be interesting to find out whether this kind of design can deal with seaweed or they just had more luck than Scout Transatlantic, Solar Voyager, SolarSurfer... these projects were using thrusters and the thrusters failed within a relatively short time.

Another important factor are ocean currents. Some ocean currents in the Atlantic are faster than a small solar-powered boat can travel. You can go in the direction of the main currents, but once the boat gets too far from the predefined path (it can happen during a storm or unusual weather conditions), it will hardly reach the correct destination. The hardest rule of the Microtransat Challenge is to reach the destination point within 25 km radius. It's to rule out boats that are driven primarily by the ocean currents.

Yes, designing a robust sailboat is much harder than building a robust motorboat - a motorboat is just more compact. But once this problem is solved (if it can be solved), a sailboat will become better in many aspects including the speed.

Comment by Jack Crossfire on October 27, 2016 at 10:18am

The best obstacle avoidance system is a "keep clear" sign. 

Comment by Gary McCray on October 27, 2016 at 10:23am

Hi Andy,

For electric motor boats you are absolutely right, they actually have 2 Achilles heel's the motor and the prop.

It would certainly be possible to design an open frame brushless motor that could survive in this kind of use, but with the possible exception of hugely expensive ROV motors nobody has actually done it yet, and the bearings are the main issue along with many of the failed attempts relying on motors that are definitely not designed to operate in sea water.

The prop is also a significant issue and needs to be a seriously antifouling design.

Most of the current attempts have just used ordinary props which will easily foul on sea weed let alone fishline or net. Possibly something more like current submarine propeller design.

I definitely think sail is a possibility, but it's design is going to be significantly different from anything we have seen so far: flexible, rigid, semi rigid, impermeable or even possibly permeable.

There are a lot of conflicting necessities and propulsion versus strength and antifouling considerations.

This is a very interesting area right now, because so many design possibilities and necessities are currently not yet determined.

Be really interesting to see what finally comes out on top.

Best Regards,

Gary

Comment by Andy Osusky on October 27, 2016 at 10:57am

@RPM

The boat will reach the shore one day, but it can take a very long time. There is a contact information on several visible places on the boat. Yes, there were crazy storms before the boat stopped transmitting. Not sure if it has something to do with Matthew, but I know there were cyclones very close to the boat.

@Jack Crossfire

The likelihood of encountering an obstacle in the ocean is very small, I have just put that sign because everyone else did it since the year 2006. ;) However, icebergs around Newfoundland during April-July can be an issue.

@Gary McCray

Powerboats and submarines have STRONG motors. The propellers would cut through the seaweed and maybe fishing lines. With a boat of size max. 2.4 metres / 8 feet (as required by the Microtransat rules and safety regulations), you can't get more than 200W solar power. Then the thrusters are weak.

My new design is a self-righting trimaran with a rigid sailwing. I got advice from professional boat builders. It will be made from strong composites (carbon fiber/fiberglass/Kevlar). What will happen, we will see in 2017.

Comment by Gary McCray on October 27, 2016 at 11:39am

Hi Andy,

The submarine thruster props I was talking about are actually long spirals more like an Archimedes screw than a conventional prop.

They are actually primarily made that way so that they do not reflect Sonar in an easily recognizable pulsing pattern and so that they have a minimum acoustic signature of their own.

But in reality, they are also non-fouling and typically just go through stuff that would immediately foul normal propellers.

I believe some small electric trolling motors have similar props available specifically for their anti-fouling characteristics.

I do think the rigid sailwing is an excellent alternative to a conventional sail.

Of course the trick there is to make it's structure and especially it's internal spar (and hull pivot) strong enough to withstand being bashed around by storm waves.

Most sailwings I have seen are rectangular things that stick way up into the air.

I suspect a lower profile could be easier to ruggedize against potential storm forces.

I have seen one design that had three or four sailwings in a line that were ganged together that seemed like it might provide a more secure structure.

Also you can make a sailwing in a triangular design just as effectively as a rectangular one, it would just have a decreasing chord, and that should make fouling less likely.

As far as vessels at sea, you probably do need to make some attempt to be visible so ships / boats could spot you more easily.

Seems to me painting everything in reflective International orange would give you the best visibility.

And maybe a couple small optical/radar retro reflectors on deck or the top of the sailwing.

Just a few thoughts.

I watched a video of a very large ocean research vessel going through continuous waves that were higher than the top of the bridge (over 80 feet).

Eventually smashed in the glass on the bridge, nobody was hurt and they got home, but the power of the sea in a storm can be awe inspiring, I really love the idea of these little things bouncing around in that and then just keeping on trucking.

Best,

Gary

Comment by Ben on October 27, 2016 at 11:50am

 Congrats for this interesting project ! Did you consider trying first on a smaller distance than the ocean ? For example something like the Channel (between UK and France), that's a few tens of kilometers and that a lot of people have crossed to break different records (swimming, human powered plane, etc). Of course it's a less exciting challenge but for example doing zig-zags in a similar area until reaching an interesting distance would allow to test your system in real conditions without getting too far from the coast(s). Notice that the Channel is probably not a good place to start as it's crowded by boats of all sizes (and even by a train...)

Comment by Andy Osusky on October 27, 2016 at 12:24pm

@Gary McCray Now I understand, it's like a water scooter.

The sailwing will have an inner structure like an airplane wing. The mast will be made from a thick carbon fiber tube.

Regarding the color, yes, it is one of the recommendations on the Microtransat Challenge website. However, too much of attention-catching stuff is a double-edged sword. There is one team whose boat has been caught by a fishing boat for the third year in a row. The captain was just curious and pulled their boat out of the water. Then he called them to pick up their boat at the harbour (usually, very far away). By the time the boat was caught, it was doing well.

I am going to implement AIS to avoid other vessels.

I am thinking out loud - does it make any sense to be visible to the vessels from a large distance? The autonomous boat length is limited, so it doesn't impose any hazard to the ships that are in the ocean. I don't think a big vessel will change its course just to save my relatively cheap toy ("look, someone has lost his model boat"). They will run into it whether they see it or not and they won't even notice. When we threw the boat overboard, it was lost from sight in a minute.

Because the electronics will be sealed inside the hull (and some sensors will be inside the sailwing), I need to make it as reflective as possible. Otherwise, the electronics will overheat during intense sunlight. That's why I want to paint it white, but there will be high-contrast letters on the sailwing.

Comment by Andy Osusky on October 27, 2016 at 12:30pm

@Ben

I was testing this boat on a lake, but I am going to test my next boat in my favorite place - Canary Islands. That's where I started a part of the development. The conditions there are very close to the real ocean conditions - high winds and rough waves.

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